In a phrase, “Transcendence” is best described as the difference between entertainment and entertaining. This film is certainly entertaining, but it is not entertainment. All the potential of the story was squandered into a mash up of sci-fi clichés and plot points that don’t really fit together under scrutiny. In other words, it is not very good at what it is supposed to be, while somehow still being fun to watch.
Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is the foremost researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence, working to create a sentient machine that combines the collective intelligence of everything ever known with the full range of human emotions. His highly controversial experiments have made him famous, but they have also made him the prime target of anti-technology extremists who will do whatever it takes to stop him. However, in their attempt to destroy Will, they inadvertently become the catalyst for him to succeed-to be a participant in his own transcendence. For his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), both fellow researchers, the question is not if they can…but if they should. Their worst fears are realized as Will’s thirst for knowledge evolves into a seemingly omnipresent quest for power, to what end is unknown. The only thing that is becoming terrifyingly clear is there may be no way to stop him. (Synopsis by Warner Bros.)
Wally Pfister, the visual guru behind Christopher Nolan’s many projects, gets a turn behind the camera. It is a blessing in some ways, but mostly a curse. His style and visual acumen comes through and makes this film infinitely more watchable than it should be. The sets are gorgeous, the colors (or lack thereof) are spot on to the mood of the film, and the visuals often act as a guiding force for the narrative, even moreso than the actors. The “regenerative” effects towards the end of the film are especially well done.
Yet, the flaw here is that Pfister’s directorial skills are woefully underdeveloped. There is no “guiding hand” to keep the plot on track. For all his skills in the art department, he has a long way to go before he can rein in a project. Studio executives obviously threw a bunch of talent his way to help him over the hump, but even the likes of Depp, Mara, and Freeman couldn’t save this. Especially egregious is the realization after watching that you aren’t really sure what Morgan Freeman was even doing the whole time. He simply disappears from the film’s landscape. Unacceptable.
The obvious comparison is to “Her,” but there are parts of “A.I.” here as well. This is a story of man transcending (see what I did there??) technology and the impact on human relationships. Yet for a premise that has so much potential, “Transcendence” comes across flat. The focus on the broad stokes of the theme prevents a connection with the characters. Nobody cares if love can be saved by integration into a machine, because didn’t care about your love in the first place. “Her” and “A.I.” were at least successful in establishing characters, even if they could be accused of digging too deep into their premises.
The problems run much deeper here. Pfister never manages to stick with even that simple story. Instead he bounces between sci-fi tropes while circling back to the love story until he cartwheels off into an action flick. Mara’s character is the embodiment of this lack of focus. First she is a hacker, then a terrorist, then an action hero, until she ultimately just disappears. Couple all that mess with nearly nonsensical techno-jargon and by the time all the jumping around ends the film just doesn’t make much sense anymore.
Back to our initial point. To be called entertainment would require this film to embody the characteristics of a well-made film. While some of that is subjective to the viewer, there are measurable qualities: do the characters and story make sense in context, for example. Unequivocally, this film fails at this. It is certainly entertaining to watch, with nice visuals and people shooting guns. Pfister needs remember the next time he directs a film that entertaining does not equal entertainment.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: Skip it. It would be more interesting to find out if Depp agreed to film this from his apartment. He spends more time as a bad computer image than a person on screen.
ONE AND A HALF STARS out of four.
Directed by Wally Pfister
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.
Runtime: 1 hour and 59 minutes